SUNDAY TIMES - Why Annette Bening would hate to be 21 again
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Sunday Times Entertainment By Daphne Lockyer, 2017-05-14 00:00:00.0

Why Annette Bening would hate to be 21 again

Annette Bening is currently starring in "20th Century Women".
Image: Supplied

In '20th Century Women', Bening plays a mom bewildered by the modern world. As she tells Daphne Lockyer, from Trump to the Kardashians, some of that is true

Annette Bening is happy to have been born in the middle of the 20th century. Now, at 58, the actress has moments, she says, when she looks at her laugh lines in the mirror or, worse, magnified on the big screen and thinks, "Oh dear!"

But still, she says, "I'm glad to be the age I am - wrinkles and all. I can't help thinking there are a lot of pressures on young women today that I would struggle to deal with. I wouldn't want to be 21 again."

Bening was 21 in 1979, which is the year in which her latest film, 20th Century Women, is set. It was an era in which women owned copies of the feminist bible Our Bodies, Ourselves, and believed in a bright tomorrow.

"It felt like America was going through a huge shift, which is why the director, Mike Mills, chose that year," says Bening, eyes darting enthusiastically around the Soho hotel suite where we meet.

Bening plays Dorothea Fields - a fiercely loving single mother who had her now teenage son, Jamie, at 40. She enlists two young women (played by Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) to help guide him through the minefield of a modern world that feels, at times, beyond her grasp.

The film, she hopes, will resonate with all mothers.

"It's about the need to protect your children from pain. But also the need to let go and to allow them to make their own mistakes. It's about the longing and distance that can exist between a mother and son - even when they love each other totally."

Bening is articulate, funny and thoughtful by turns.

"The movie," she says, "worked its way deep inside of me." It also felt close to home: "Santa Barbara, the setting, and San Diego, where I grew up, are so similar. I could smell the beach, feel the sand between my toes, hear the music.

"And, then, there is William," she adds, referring to the gentle dude (played by Billy Crudup) who rents a room in Dorothea's house.

"I knew several Williams. They were wonderful guys who were good with their hands, always fixing cars and surfing. I have a huge amount of love for them."

Not that she ended up with one. She is famously married to Hollywood power-player Warren Beatty.

Before they met, on the set of the 1991 movie Bugsy, Beatty was a legendary ladies' man who had dated Julie Christie, Barbra Streisand and Madonna, and bedded many others. He was 55, more than 20 years older than Bening, and had never married, claiming it was divorce he feared. Bening cured his phobia.

"We're about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary," she beams. "There is no secret to achieving a long marriage, nor is it a virtue when people stay together. It's just a choice, pure and simple. Like my parents, who have been married 66 years, we simply choose to stay together.

There is no secret to achieving a long marriage, nor is it a virtue when people stay together. It's just a choice, pure and simple

"People who divorce make a choice, too, and that can be as difficult as it is, at times, to stay together.

"But we are committed to one another, and there is love and a mutual respect between us that makes it easy for us to choose to be together. We have four amazing children and that binds us, too. I feel very lucky."

Her own childhood, she says, was "blessed". Her father was an insurance salesman and Bening was the youngest of four. She always wanted the big family she now has with Beatty; they are parents to Stephen, 25, Benjamin, 22, Isabel, 19, and Ella, 16.

Children have enriched their lives. "You give birth to them, nurture and teach them. Then you reach the point where you sit back and think, 'From now on, you're teaching me.'"

WATCH the trailer for 20th Century Women

Her transgender son's heroic act

There have been challenges, though. Stephen, the couple's eldest, was born Kathlyn, but he identified as male from a young age and transitioned in his mid-teens.

While Bening understandably wants to protect her son's privacy, she describes it as "a truly heroic act" and is delighted that a formerly taboo topic is now firmly on the agenda.

"It's not as if the experience itself is new. People who don't necessarily fall into one gender identification or another have always existed, but the difference now is that it's OK to express it openly and there are words that you can use," she says.

"If you're a kid, or going through what is a difficult and confusing process, you can go online and see that you're not alone. Other people have that impulse, too, and there's nothing wrong with it."

She recommends Jennifer Finney Boylan's book, She's Not There.

"It's great for anyone who's curious about the subject, whether you're a friend, a child or a parent.

"It's about finding authenticity and that's a journey we're all on - whether we're cisgendered or transgendered or straight or gay or bi, or somewhere in between - we're all searching for that feeling of being truly oneself."

Authenticity is also, perhaps, a byword for Bening's most notable performances. She has been Oscar-nominated four times for roles in The Grifters (1990), American Beauty (1999), Being Julia (2004) and The Kids Are All Right (2010). It seems a glaring omission that she's missing from the 2017 list of nominees.

"Recognition is nice," she says, diplomatically. "But it isn't why you do it."

Trump the embarrassment

Bening was at the recent Golden Globes when Meryl Streep delivered her salvo against Trump.

"I thought it was brilliant and agreed with everything she said." Usually discreet about politics, Bening is moved now to describe Trump as "troubling" and "an embarrassment".

"I think he is as surprised by being president as the rest of us. I don't believe he thought he'd win. And so many of the things that he's done in his life, he never anticipated having to answer for, because he was a businessman, not a politician.

"The way that he insults people and attacks them personally is just unbelievably embarrassing to the American people. I wish he'd have some sense of dignity, even if he disagrees with someone."

She calls the former Apprentice star a "reality-TV president" and his election is part of the "Kardashian-isation" of society.

The latter phenomenon, she thinks, has a lot to answer for, not least its effect on young women.

"You have to look a certain way now. It's the law. Society wants you to be educated, have a good job, get married and have children at the same time.

"It's as though women have forgotten that the truly liberated thing is being able to make choices - and, sometimes, to choose not to do some of these things."

What a relief, she adds, to no longer be young.

"I'm able to let go of things that aren't important and I'm not nearly as much of a people-pleaser as I used to be. While it's nice to dress up sometimes, put on heels and makeup and be glamorous, it's also very liberating not to care too much about it."

Bening has resisted the pressures so often placed on older actresses to make tweaks to their appearance.

"My aspiration has always been to be able to act for my entire life and to represent women that are the age that I am.

"For me there's honour and pleasure in being a veteran, and a fully grown-up woman. I really do prefer this period of my life," she says with a big smile. — The Daily Telegraph, London

• 20th Century Women is in cinemas